If my South Indian father hadn't found himself in a Kansas wheat field
thirty years ago, this book would never have been written. Because
he was doing atmospheric research on the American prairie, miles from
any restaurants, he tried his hand at cooking. Being a scientist gave
my father an advantage in cooking--he liked to experiment, and he
wrote everything down so he could duplicate his results. Inspired
by the flavors of his youth, he started with South Indian standards
like sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable stew; green bean thoren
(green beans with coconut and mustard seeds); and Mysore pak, a shortbread-type
sweet made with ghee. Dinners in my house would alternate between
my American mother's forays into Julia Child and my father's latest
experiments with Indian cooking. My sister and brother and I relished
it all, and we were reminded of how good we had it when our school
friends visited and, catching a whiff of lamb curry, asked if they
could stay for dinner. Just as his trips to the Midwest tapered off,
my father was approached by the owner of a cookware store in Boulder,
Colorado, to see if he'd teach a course on Indian cooking. He taught
the popular class for four years and continued refining more North
and South Indian dishes all the while. As my interest in cooking grew,
I frequently found myself in the kitchen at his elbow--watching, learning,
smelling, and tasting. While attending Pomona College in southern
California, I formed a cultural club so I could make Indian food for
my friends, and when I began working at a New York magazine I catered
Indian dinners on deadline nights.
I was often struck by the disparity between the South Indian cooking
Igrew up with and the North Indian food served in restaurants. The
more I cooked, the more I understood about different regional styles,
and the more motivated I became to learn about South Indian food.
Every few years our family would travel to Kerala, the state in
South India where my father grew up. On these trips I would plant
myself in my aunt's kitchen in her Kottayam home and take careful
notes so I could try to reproduce those elusive flavors back in
Kerala is an interesting and unique culinary pocket, its cuisine
shaped by climate, geography, and religion. This tropical stretch
of land extends along the Malabar Coast, where southwestern India
meets the Arabian Sea. In the summer months the monsoon transforms
it into a virtual rain forest. Coconut, fish, and shellfish are
abundant there, and are combined in numerous curries including fish
molee (fish with coconut milk and vinegar) and shrimp thiyal (shrimp
in a toasted coconut sauce). Fragrant curry leaves (unrelated to
curry powder) and mustard seeds, both of which grow in the region,
distinctively season South Indian vegetable curries and dhals (split
legumes). An extensive network of waterways outlines brilliant green
rice paddies, rice being the staple starch in the diet.
In contrast, northern India, with its dry plains and cool temperatures,
is ideal for growing wheat. The hard durum variety makes excellent
chappathi (flat bread cooked on an iron skillet) and puri (deep-fried
flat bread); consequently, breads make up the primary starch of
that region. Milk products, including cream, ghee (clarified butter),
and paneer (homemade cheese) all feature more prominently in the
cooking of the north than that of the south.
While many of the same spices are used in both regions, they are
manipulated differently in each. In the north they dry-roast whole
spices before grinding them and adding them to their cooking; in
the south they blend whole and powdered spices into a wet paste.
To round out the flavor of a finished curry, North Indian cooks
add a pinch of garam masala, a spice blend usually made with black
pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. In the south a curry is
finished off with a seasoning of curry leaves, mustard seeds, and
dried red pepper, sizzled together in coconut oil.
The southern tip of India was geographically isolated from the
Mughal influence that took hold of the north in the Middle Ages.
The Mughals were Central Asian invaders who filtered into India,
establishing a dynastic rule that lasted from the sixteenth to the
eighteenth century. They brought with them a taste for lamb, nuts,
and dried fruits, and the forerunners of such contemporary North
Indian staples as tandoori chicken and pullao. As Muslims, the Mughals
avoided pork but ate other types of meat.
Prior to the arrival of the Mughals, Indian food attitudes in the
north and the south were shaped by a Hindu belief that eating and
spiritual advancement are part of the same cosmic cycle. Vegetarianism,
and specifically avoiding beef, are aspects of this philosophy.
The cow and bull have always had an auspicious place in the Hindu
religion because of their close associations with the gods Krishna
and Shiva, and an important role in the economy as a source of milk
and labor. And while Hindus would occasionally eat chicken, fish,
goat, or lamb, Buddhists and Jains, on the other hand, followed
a strict vegetarian lifestyle, which was relatively easy to do given
India's natural abundance of vegetables, grains, and legumes.
Although the southern cuisine remained largely untouched by the
Mughal influence, Kerala's wealth of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger,
and turmeric turned the ports of Cochin and Calicut into magnets
for the worldwide spice trade, bringing the region in contact with
the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs throughout antiquity; Marco Polo
in 1294; the Portuguese, including explorer Vasco da Gama, in 1498;
and the Dutch and British beginning in the seventeenth century.
As each of these groups angled for a piece of the spice trade,
they brought with them new foods that worked their way into the
cuisine. Saffron, fennel, and fenugreek came originally from the
Mediterranean, while New World tomatoes, potatoes, and cashews came
to India by way of the Portuguese. The ingredient with the most
dramatic impact on Indian cooking was the chili pepper, first discovered
by Columbus in the Caribbean, then brought to India by Portuguese
traders. Until that point, Indian cooks relied on black pepper for
pungency. Once the more complex-tasting chili arrived, it quickly
replaced black pepper as the primary hot ingredient of the cuisine.
Since antiquity, the predominantly Hindu state of Kerala has been
home to a thriving Christian population, some of whom St. Thomas
the Apostle is believed to have converted in A.D. 52, some of whom
arrived in the fourth century after fleeing persecution in Syria.
This Syrian Christian community, which distinguishes itself by wearing
only white, made a significant contribution to Kerala's cuisine,
adding to the local fare meat dishes such as lamb stew and piralen
(stir-fried meat marinated in vinegar and spices). The Christians
eat all types of meat, including beef and pork. Today approximately
20 percent of Kerala's population is Christian, 60 percent is Hindu,
and 20 percent is Muslim, and it is one of two states in India where
slaughtering beef is legal (West Bengal is the other).
Among Kerala's Hindu population is a large ancient subgroup called
the Nayars (Nairs), to which my father belongs. Unlike the Namboodiris
(Kerala's strictly vegetarian priest class), the Nayars eat chicken,
fish, and lamb, although they never serve meat at wedding feasts.
Certain dishes like aviyal (mixed vegetables cooked with coconut
and tamarind) and thoren (shredded vegetables with grated coconut)
are strongly associated with Nayar cooking.
The Muslim population in Karala, called Moplas, descends from the
Arab spice traders who frequented the Malabar Coast. The Muslims
introduced elements of their own cooking to the south, with dishes
like biriyani, an elaborate combination of rice and meat, and kabab
(grilled marinated meat).
The cooking of Kerala has much in common with that of its neighboring
South Indian states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
Sharing similar climates, all four states incorporate coconut milk,
tamarind, curry leaves, and mustard seeds into their dishes. The
cooking in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tends to be vegetarian, and
dosa (fermented rice pancakes) and sambar are consumed in abundance.
Andhra Pradesh's food is Muslim influenced, and renowned as the
hottest food in India. Quintessential Kerala dishes, such as appam
(rice and coconut pancakes), stew (coconut milk curries), and kichadi
(chopped vegetables in a coconut and yogurt sauce), rely on the
ever-present coconut. Nevertheless, few people know about the cuisine
of these southern states because a majority of the Indian restaurants
outside of India serve Mughal-style, North Indian food, since that
is widely considered the most refined cooking in India.
If you are lucky enough to have a South Indian restaurant nearby,
there's a good chance it's a vegetarian one. South Indian vegetarian
restaurants have been successful in some urban areas, and it seems
restaurant owners are reluctant to tamper with this formula. Furthermore,
there is a perception among Indian restaurateurs that many of the
common South Indian dishes like stews and thorens are rustic, homey
foods that would not appeal to non-Indians. As a result, it is very
difficult to find typical Kerala-style fish and meat curries outside
of India. This book helps to fill that gap and at the same time
provides some of the perennial North Indian favorites, like Rogan
Josh (page 138), Spinach Paneer (page 81), and Eggplant Bhurta (page
96), that are enjoyed in North and South India alike. Taken together,
these recipes give a sense of the wide array of flavors that make
up Indian cuisine.
Tips on Finding Ingredients
A nice surprise is that most of the ingredients you'll need are
sold in supermarkets. If not, they are available from local Indian,
East Asian, or even Hispanic markets, or health food stores (see
Notes on Ingredients, pages 17-24). For those not near international
grocery stores, I've listed some mail-order sources in the back
of this book (page 176).
You won't find references to commercial curry powder in any of
these recipes. The terms "curry" and "curry powder"
have become so generic that many people only have the vaguest sense
of their meaning. "Curry powder" is not a single spice,
and "curry" does not define a particular dish. A better
definition of curry is a preparation of meat, fish, vegetables,
eggs, or even fruit, cooked with a mixture of aromatic spices; it
can be wet or dry, spicy or mild. Premixed, packaged "curry
powder" doesn't allow for variety. If you want your dishes
to be vibrant and distinctive tasting, blend your own spices for
There are many possible origins for the word "curry":
it could be from the Tamil (a South Indian language) word kari,
meaning "sauce," or from kari leaves (or curry leaves,
as I call them here) used in cooking in the south, or even from
the wok-shaped vessel called a kadhai. These theories aside, we
do know that the British took to using it in the eighteenth century
as a general term for all the spicy Indian dishes they encountered,
thus bringing it into common use.
If you keep some basic ingredients on hand--and you may already
have them--it will take very little effort to use this book. You
will need coriander, cumin, black pepper, red pepper (cayenne),
turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mustard seeds (preferably
brown), fennel seeds, and dried red chilies, all of which should
be kept in airtight containers to preserve their flavors; anything
more than two years old should be replaced. Some ingredients that
may not be on your shelf are fresh green chilies, coconut milk,
dried grated unsweetened coconut, curry leaves, and tamarind. Cooking
with these ingredients will bring you much closer to replicating
authentic flavors, so try to obtain them if possible. In some cases
a substitution is suggested if the first choice is hard to find;
in other cases exotic ingredients, like asafetida, are often listed
as optional. In general, the more closely you follow the recipe,
the more satisfying your results will be.
Preparing and Serving Indian Food
The most efficient way to prepare an Indian meal is to have all
the ingredients chopped and measured before beginning. This is useful
because a common technique is to add various ingredients to a hot
skillet in rapid succession. There will be a fair amount of chopping--everything
is cut into bite-size pieces--so do that first. I recommend chopping
generous batches of ginger and garlic and having them ready if you're
making more than one recipe that needs them. It also helps to measure
your ground spice mixtures into small bowls and have them ready
to toss into the skillet.
A number of dishes require the use of green chilies. When handling
chilies, be cautious. The oil in their seeds can cause a painful
burning sensation, especially if it gets on your face or in your
eyes. If you are extremely sensitive to chilies, you may wish to
wear latex or rubber gloves. Always be sure to wash your hands thoroughly,
and clean your knife and cutting surface when you're done.
One technique used throughout this book is "seasoning"
oil with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried red peppers. This
method is a standard part of South Indian cooking--sometimes as
the first step, sometimes as the last. In either case, it is advised
that you have a lid over your skillet when heating the seeds, because
as soon as they get very hot, they release their moisture and "pop."
Allow the seeds to pop for about ten seconds (with the lid on) before
proceeding to the next step in the recipe. This infuses the oil
with a nutty flavor, which permeates the entire dish.
A few dishes call for only two or three spices, but generally curries
need between five and ten aromatic ingredients to give them complexity.
A spice blend in Indian cooking is referred to as a masala, which
simply means a mixture of spices. Some recipes use dry masalas of
ground spices, and some use wet masalas of ground spices worked
into a paste with coconut, onion, and water. The consistency of
the masala has no bearing on whether the final curry is wet or dry.
In the south, curries with plenty of sauce soak into mounds of
rice or porous rice pancakes like dosa and are scooped up with the
hand, while in the north drier curries picked up with small pieces
of bread are favored. The Indian etiquette for eating with one's
hand is to use the right hand only because the left hand is used
for cleaning oneself, and therefore considered too impure to touch
food. The right hand mixes rice, dhal, and curries together to form
a most ball and deftly pops it into the mouth or tears off a bit
of bread and wraps it around a small amount of food.
Although eating with one's hand may seem unrefined to Westerners,
there are strict rules governing it. When putting food in the mouth,
for example, the hand should barely touch the mouth because contact
with one's own saliva would "pollute" the rest of the
food, and it is considered rude to lick the fingers while eating
or to let pieces of rice drop from the hand. It's a simple art,
mastered with a little practice.
Ideally, an Indian dinner should offer complementary flavors as
well as contrasting colors and textures, consisting of at least
three to four curries, salad, and rice. Based on that amount of
food, I have provided each recipe with a suggested number of servings.
If more than a few curries are prepared, each dish will stretch
farther, and it follows that fewer dishes will not feed as many
The techniques involved in preparing Indian food are quite straightforward.
After you've made a few dishes, it's easy to recognize the patterns
in the seasoning and understand the principles behind the preparations.
Omitting an ingredient is inadvisable the first time you try a recipe,
and I especially caution you to adhere to the salt measurements.
Salt makes it possible to taste the spices, and without it a curry
will be utterly flat. In most recipes I have recommended tasting
for salt before removing the curry from the heat. This step ensures
that the saltiness is in balance with the hot (chilies and black
pepper) and sour (lemon and tamarind) elements, a guideline taught
to my father by his mother. According to my grandmother, if any
one of these is in excess, the balance can be restored by slightly
increasing the other two. The result will be a better balanced,
albeit spicier, curry.
Some recipes may seem to use a fair amount of oil. The quantity
of oil in each recipe is based on the requisite amount needed for
frying onions--about 2 tablespoons per cup (180g)--and for obtaining
the proper flavor and consistency. Although the oil can be reduced
with nonstick cookware, adhere to the recipes for the most authentic
A typical wet curry begins with frying onions over medium-high
heat and stirring them frequently until the edges begin to caramelize
and turn reddish brown. This can take up to twenty minutes. (Do
not crowd too many onions in the pan because they will release so
much water that the pan will never get hot enough to brown them.
Fry in two batches if the pan is not very wide.) After the onions
are browned, minced ginger and garlic are added and fried briefly,
followed by the ground spices, the main ingredients, and the cooking
liquid. The mixture is brought to a boil and then simmered for thirty
to forty-five minutes. At the end of the cooking process the curry
might be seasoned with garam masala or a combination of mustard
seeds, curry leaves, and dried red peppers cooked in oil.
The recipes for dry curries begin with heating whole spices (mustard
seeds or cumin seeds) in oil, adding the ground spices, the main
ingredient, and a minimal amount of water--just enough to steam
the meat or vegetable. Periodically a few drops of water are added
so the curry won't dry out completely. Dry curries tend to cook
faster than wet ones, especially thorens, which contain finely chopped
or shredded vegetables.
Indian cooking is a family tradition; the same dish varies from
region to region and home to home. These recipes come from my father,
who acquired most of them from his family, and some from friends.
After years of shaping, testing, and adapting these recipes with
him, it is with pleasure that I pass this collection of Indian dishes
along to you. So, when you're trying to curry favor with family
and friends, begin with these uncomplicated recipes and unlock a
new world of Indian flavors.
You may already have all the cooking equipment needed to prepare
an Indian meal. These are the items you will find yourself using
A set of sharp knives such as a 4-inch (10 cm) paring knife and
two 6- to 9-inch (15 to 23 cm) utility knives
A wok with a lid for stir-frying dry curries and deep frying
One or two heavy-bottomed 4- to 6-quart (4 to 6 L) Dutch ovens
or flameproof casseroles for wet curries--stainless steel, anodized
aluminum, copper lined, or nonstick
Two 3-quart (3 L) saucepans with tight-fitting lids for rice and
dhal--stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or copper lined
A heavy 10- to 12-inch (25 to 30 cm) nonstick frying pan with a
lid, preferably with deep sides, for wet or dry curries
A food processor for grinding masala pastes, processing chutneys,
and making dough
A mortar and pestle or coffee grinder dedicated to spices only
A complete set of measuring spoons and cups
A rolling pin for breads
A grater for preparing garlic, ginger, and onion to be used in
Other useful items
A mini food processor for coarsely grinding whole spices and chopping
garlic and ginger
A stainless-steel or aluminum idli stand, available at Indian grocery
Metal or wooden skewers for kabab
Cheesecloth (muslin) for making paneer
A small frying pan with a lid for seasoning oil with whole spices
An electric wok for controlled deep frying
A candy thermometer for deep frying and making sweets
Copyright Maya Kaimal Kaimal MacMillan